Resilience is defined in terms of attributes like "the ability to endure," to be "self-righting," to "be hardy," and to "thrive, mature, and increase competence in the face of adversity." It is about bouncing back from adversity or trials. Stories of personal resilience are powerful and healing for the storyteller and story-listener.
Resilience: Al's Story
Question: When were you "knocked down" for the first time in your life? What happened?
I can start at my biggest and first 'knockdown'. It was getting divorced; divorce was not something that I wanted. Looking back, I can see that God blessed me through the whole thing, but \I did not want it. I did not want to be separated from my kids. It was the biggest knockdown I have ever had. This was difficult from the beginning until I finally realized why I would want to be with a woman who didn't want to be with me, anyway? And that was how I got over that hump. I thought, Well, OK, I really need to move on. I had quit my golf pro job and my basketball coaching job because I wanted to save my marriage, and those jobs took me away from my house at the wrong times. We never seemed to have enough time together. After I quit those jobs my marriage was not saved, and I had difficulty finding work. I worked at a grain elevator on a farm in Iowa during the spring planting season. I loaded the fertilizer trucks. When I returned home, I wasn't allowed back into my house. It was a shock how it all happened. But when I finally made up my mind and realized she did not want to be with me, I was able to get over the hump and move on.
I was unemployed for quite a while, for about a year and a half. No one would hire me because I was overqualified for labor jobs and had no experience in other jobs. I did anything I could for twenty-five bucks to survive. And then I moved back to the farm. That's where I met someone whose grandfather owned a carpet and furniture store. I was employed in the flooring business, and then things started moving up. I met Louanne because I was friends with her sister, Lynette, and her brother-in-law. I had called her sister to tell her that a friend and I were going to be coming by to go to a golf tournament with her husband the next morning. Lynette insisted we stop by the house, and Louanne was there. That is how we met. We fell in love and got married. We both could move anywhere we wanted. I preferred to leave the cold weather, so we moved south to the Springfield, Branson area.
Everything went smoothly until my quadruple heart bypass in 2005. That was a 'knock-me-down'. I had a thyroid issue that I was seeing a doctor for. I was tired and out of breath. I told my thyroid doctor what was going on. At the same time, we were packing to move from St. Joseph, MO, to southern MO. My thyroid doctor said, "you pack no more, or you will have a heart attack and die!" I had more tests done. They would not even let me go home; they admitted me immediately to the hospital. They were amazed that I had not had a heart attack. I had two 100% blockages, an 80% blockage, and another one at 30%, which they had discovered during surgery. I was in the hospital all weekend then they did a quadruple bypass on Monday. I handle that stuff because
it is what it is, and I don't get upset. My thoughts were that I will do what I have to do to recover, and that is what I do. I had surgery on February 5th, and we moved on March 1st; it did not delay our move at all!
I got out of the hospital on the Friday after surgery. The very next Monday, I played pool. I didn't break the balls because that would be too much pressure, but I could play. The following July, I started back working in flooring. We moved to the Branson area because Louanne had a job change....and I am the 'guy who followed her.'
Everything seemed smooth again, from July when I started working until May the following year when I was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. I had stomach issues, especially early in the morning, and would not feel better until later in the day. We finally went to the doctor. They did a colonoscopy and discovered a baseball size tumor in y colon. It had spread to my liver, and they also thought it was in my lungs. The local surgeon who did the colon surgery told me not to worry about the lung; he said he did not think it was in my lung. But I was sent to Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis to meet with the lung and liver specialists. The lung surgeon ad different plans to approach the possible lung cancer and wanted to do surgery the next week. I told him I was on chemo drugs, so I could not have surgery for three months. He said, "I will have to look into that." We asked him if he would discuss his plan with the liver specialist, who was in consultation with my colon specialist. He looked at us and said the liver surgeon is not a lung surgeon, and he would not talk to him about his plan.
The next appointment was with the liver surgeon. I told him the lung surgeon wanted to do surgery the next week, and he said, "No, we are not. You can have lung surgery while your liver is healing, but you can't have liver surgery while your lung is healing. So liver surgery will be first." We called my colon specialist, who said, "don't worry about it. I will take care of it." I had liver surgery, and then a different lung specialist met me after the surgery and said, "I've been looking at your scans, and I do not think you have cancer in your lung. It has not changed, and we will follow it up." After three months, it had not changed, so that was the end of that!
When I finished with the liver surgery, we came home, and I had to have another three months of chemo. I returned to work in March of 2007. The whole process, thankfully, did not make me very sick. I would go in for a day of chemo; then, they would send me home with a pump pack for more chemo. The nurse would come to take off the pump, and twice I got sick, but otherwise, I did not get terribly sick. I could not work through this time. Then I was pronounced cancer free after the treatments! I had a very poor prognosis of about 5-10%, so this was great news. I lost about 25 pounds during the treatments but was free from cancer.
How did these events impact your wife, Louanne?
I think it was much harder for Louanne to get through this. I was dealing with what it was. It was my life, but she might lose someone she loved. My reaction was more black and white. I probably did not realize it at the time. A funny story, the day I had the colonoscopy, and they discovered this large mass, Louanne had to drive me home. It was my pool league night. I told her, "I am going to my pool league night." she said, "no, you are not." I told her I would not stay home moping and whining about this. I am going to play pool." she refused to take me but said if I could find someone to pick me up then I could go. So I called a teammate who came to pick me up, someone she had never met. He opened the door, and she gave him a big hug and started sobbing. I didn't really think of how she was dealing with this. I now see that it might have been harder on her than on me.
What strengths did you pull from to get through this?
We had a lot of prayer warriors helping us through this. My belief in Christ is black and white. If God wanted to take me home, He would take me home. The doctors told me I only had a 5% chance of survival. Our prayer was that if it were His will to heal me, He would heal me, but if not, I wanted to be strong in my faith for all the people caring for me so that they would see my faith in Jesus Christ. My belief in God made this trial easier to go through. I knew where I was going to go if I did. Heaven is better than here, so if God takes me home, He takes me home. That might have been a harder thing for Louanne to accept than I.
What would you say to someone who has stage four cancer?
I would tell them I will be there for their questions. It is not my place to tell them that it will all be ok. I have had friends facing cancer and chemo, and I encourage them and answer their questions about possible side effects, such as following a routine to prevent mouth sores. It is far better to prevent than to treat, as I had to.
Has this changed your outlook on anything in your life?
After cancer, heart surgery, and my recent heart attack, I seek more balance and try not to work so much. But then, as time distances from the event, I get pulled back into overworking. But I am more aware of priorities, even the little things, like spending more time with friends and loved ones. Time with loved ones has become more precious to me. I was never an emotional person; nothing would make me cry until I had my open heart surgery. Now I cry at everything. I can watch Flipper and cry. I can watch movies that are funny and cry. If it is just something emotional, not even sad, just emotional, I start crying, the tears flowing. Louanne will look over at me and say, "you're crying again." I guess the heart surgery changed my hear!